For 26 years, the Congregational Church of Patchogue on Long Island, New York, has been offering soap, deodorant, wash cloths and other toiletries to homeless persons. Now we are offering them an opportunity to put them to use.
On Wednesday night, Dec. 13, a Mobile Shower Unit was parked behind the church prior to, during and after the soup kitchen dinner service. Guests of the unit were offered a free and refreshing shower, clean clothing (pajama bottoms and sweater), a towel, soap and shampoo. The church provided a "goodie bag" containing a toothbrush, hand soap, toothpaste, wash cloth, towel, packaged underwear, new thermal socks, gloves, blanket and — of course — candy canes to anyone who wanted it (some people wanted the goodie bag but not the shower). The mobile shower unit was alternately segregated by gender (all women followed by all men). Exceptions were made, for example, for a woman using a walker who needed physical assistance from her partner. The four-shower unit was offered to them for exclusive use. Showers lasted 10-15 minutes, but no one was ejected when their allotted time had expired.
It is difficult to accurately depict the "tidings of comfort and joy" that this service brought to our guests. It was a bitterly cold night. Think of what a hot shower means to you when your fingers, toes and nose are numb with cold. Think of a hot and a nutritious meal waiting for you. Now, think that the following morning after you wake to three inches of snow on the frozen ground, and it is still bitterly cold. These fifteen people (who showed up at an unadvertised event) are are still homeless. And in a little over a week they will still be homeless on Christmas morning.
A hot shower during a winter Advent season is indeed a blessing and, dare I speculate, a seemingly 'religious' experience. The community response to this church initiative via newspapers and social media is the largest of any of the many things we have done in the past eleven years. People love that the church is responding to this very basic need during the holiday season. Contributions have poured in, and I anticipate that this blessing could be duplicated in many other churches both within and without the UCC.
The Mobile Shower Unit is provided by Hands Across Long Island (HALI), an organization that is partially funded through state and county mental hygiene and mental health departments. Our initiative was offered in full cooperation with the local police department. We plan to schedule it regularly going forward, to be offered once a month. Our church will begin immediate negotiations toward more frequent visits (perhaps once a week), based upon the popularity of this first effort; and anticipate more usage now that this gift has been unwrapped, and the word is out in the homeless community.
The Rev. Dwight Lee Wolter is the pastor of the Congregational Church of Patchogue.